A Closet Like No Other

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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Maira Kalman‘s mother and Alex Kalman’s grandmother never dreamed that her closet would be immortalized in museums and a book. The meticulously organized, modest closet in which Sara Berman (1920–2004) kept her all-white apparel and accessories, which both contained her life and revealed it, was somehow waiting to be made into art. Inspired by the beauty and meaning of “Sara Berman’s Closet,” Maira and Alex recreated the closet and its contents as an art installation that began in 2015 at Mmuseumm, moved in 2017 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and has been traveling ever since (for availability contact info@mmuseumm.com). This month the book, “Sara Berman’s Closet” by the Kalmans is published. I asked Maira to talk about this unique art work and emotionally stirring document.

There may be some people who don’t know about Sara Berman’s Closet. For them and the rest of us who love the story, first, who is Sara Berman?

Sara Berman was a beautiful woman. My mother and Alex’s grandmother. She never worked outside the home. Her uniqueness and freshness of vision were always an inspiration. She was very funny. After 38 years of marriage, she left her husband. The story is one of her from Belarus to Tel Aviv to NYC.

How did this installation come about?

Sara lived in a studio apartment on Horatio Street in NYC. When she died in 2004 we happened to be standing in her closet trying to figure out what to do with everything.

She only wore white. She ironed and folded everything with military precision. It was a minor work of art. Or major.

And we thought it had to be a museum installation. Or rather that we would keep the closet that way and people could come to that apartment.

But that proved to be unwieldy. So we kept all of her things. Fortunately, one of us –Alex Kalman — happened to open and direct a museum on Cortland Alley in a defunct elevator shaft. A museum of cultural anthropology called MMUSEUMM. We realized that the time had come (now 2015) to install Sara’s closet. Not a shrine to Sara, but an intersection of art, history, philosophy. Alex installed this closet with a window facing the alley that was lit 24/7. As people walked down the dirty alley they came upon this pristine, white, bright, minimalist surprise installation. What was it? They stopped and looked. There was a bench to sit on. And more and more people came to see it. It was illuminating.

The closet moved from MMUSEUMM to the Met, how did that come to pass?

Amelia Peck, a curator of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was an admirer of the installation. When Alex spoke with her about where the exhibit could travel to, she said she had a nice place called the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As the curator of the American Wing she saw an opportunity to install the closet in conversation with the over the top, ornate closet of the richest woman in the United States in1882. Sara moved into her humble apartment in 1982 after leaving her husband.

So a one hundred year difference in American history leads to a big conversation. How do women find their power? What gives life meaning? What do people really need to be happy? It was a welcome surprise in a museum that mostly shows objects with a fancy provenance. Here are Sara’s bras bought from a sale bin. The show was a wonderful success and stayed there for nine months. 200,000 people visited the closet.

Other than form, what is the difference between the book and the installation?

The book tells a bigger story. Of life in Belarus. Leaving for Palestine. Leaving for America. Leaving her husband. Lots of leaving. But also finding. Finding peace of mind. Finding your time. Knowing what you have. There are many paintings and more photos. It is an illustrated biography that moves very quickly with some tears and laughter along the way.

This is such a special project. Sara was a mom and a grandmother. What emotions does this book churn up inside of you?

It is grand and great to pour the emotions and memories that you have of someone you loved (and love) into work. Work answers so many questions. I am always missing her. I always talk to her. I always wonder what she would think of my outfit or haircut.And I think that she would be amazed and happy with all the work that Alex and I did together. So its all good and TGIF.